An Oxford Christmas

As many of you probably know, I spent this past Christmas in Oxford.  It was a bittersweet experience; this was my first Christmas away from home and my family.  I’m honestly not quite sure how well I would have fared without the internet to bring us together, as much as it could at any rate.  Christmas Eve, I made sure to call home and talk with some of my extended family during our annual grab-bag and gift exchange.  My parents also mailed me a couple boxes of presents and, through no short of a Christmas miracle, they arrived on-time and we were able through Skype to open presents together on Christmas morning (well, Christmas afternoon for me).  My parents even mailed me a stocking!  Although nothing could compare with actually being home for Christmas, we made the best of it, and it went far better than I had dared hope.

Spending this Christmas in the UK has given me the opportunity to see the season in a different light.  I have been regularly attending services at the University Church of St. Mary’s, and it was interesting for me to compare how the Christmas season is celebrated here versus back home.  Aside from a few different hymns, much of the services were the same.  There were still the obligatory abundance of readings from Isaiah (I think one every single Sunday of the Advent season), children still came up and lit the Advent candles, and there was still a ceramic nativity scene.  On Christmas Eve I attended a ‘Crib Service’, something I had never heard of before.  Upon arriving, I discovered that it was a reenactment of the Christmas story by the children of the congregation, much like the Christmas pageant my church holds back home.  I was impressed to discover that the service was written by two of the older children, who decided to turn the inn and the stable of the biblical narrative into a pub, where of course it was Quiz Night.  A good time was had by all, which was certainly not hurt by the Christmas chocolates handed out at the end.

I also attended my first Midnight Mass this Christmas, which followed the same general format as a regular service except for the addition of incense, resulting in the setting off of a couple of smoke alarms.  The vicar took this is stride, reminding us that this is a season of joy and saying that we should take the alarms as a reminder that not everything in church has to be somber and serious.  I enjoyed the experience, and I was quite amused by the assistant priest who told me, “I always quite like the Midnight Mass service; you always feel like you’re doing something slightly naughty because you’re up so late.”  I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’m regularly up that late working on papers; he just looked so gleeful.

Probably the most unique thing I noticed about the Christmas season in Oxford was the prevalence of ‘Carol Services’ with a varying number of ‘Lessons’.  I ended up attending three different ones, two because I was in the choir and one put on by the University Church for charity.  These are services that are split into about 1/3 readings (the ‘lessons’), 1/3 carols sung by the congregation, and 1/3 carols sung by the choir.  The service at the University Church also featured a short address by none other than Alexander Armstrong of ‘The Armstrong and Miller Show’!  I enjoyed all the services, and I learned several new carols that I hope make their way to the States (‘Torches’, ‘The Calypso Carol’, and ‘The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came’, to name a few).

I’m glad that I had the opportunity to experience an Oxford Christmas.  It was interesting to get a glimpse of how another culture celebrates such a special time.  Watching the town decorate for Christmas was a visual treat, and with sunset at 4pm I had plenty of time to enjoy all of the holiday lights.  Although I was very sad to not celebrate Christmas at home this year, I can still say I enjoyed the Christmas season, and maybe even learned something, too.

The Magic of Oxford

I went to see Catching Fire this past Friday (it was fantastic!), and walking back from the cinema I was struck with a thought.  Well, thought isn’t quite the right word; it was more of a feeling.  It was nearly midnight and the streets were almost utterly empty, except for the occasional odd couple leisurely strolling back to their homes.  There was a soft rain, just enough to make the sidewalks glisten but not enough to send you hurrying to escape it.  The streetlamps lit the way, as did the holiday decorations.  I was in no rush to get back to my room, and as I slowly made my way back to my college, I suddenly realized why Oxford has been the home of such literary masters as C. S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll.  Walking the empty streets on a late, rainy evening, the city felt absolutely magical, as if only I took just the right wrong turn, I would find myself in Narnia or Wonderland.

Oxford is proud of its literary heritage, and it boasts among its alumni and former professors such greats as J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, and Jonathan Swift, among many, many others.  It is no surprise that many Oxford authors have found themselves drawn into the realm of fantasy.  The very air seems charged with the beauty, history, mystery, and eccentricity of this marvelous city.  Philip Pullman, in his His Dark Materials series, actually sets much the story in Oxford, albeit one in an alternate universe.  It is in this city that Lewis Carroll told stories to entertain Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, which would eventually grow into Alice in Wonderland.  Some even suggest that C.S. Lewis’s inspiration for Lucy’s first moments in Narnia can be found just outside the doors of the University Church, which he regularly attended, where two golden fauns decorate a doorway, near a quite out-of-place lamppost.

Oxford is a magical, wonderful city, and I am incredibly lucky to be able to spend a few months of my life living and studying in such beautiful surroundings.  It is a city that inspires the intellect and the imagination in equal measure, that taunts the resident and the visitor alike with tantalizing promises of fantastic and mysterious places to explore.  Explore I shall, and who knows?  Perhaps I may find Narnia after all.

The Ashmolean Museum

This past Friday was grey and dreary, and I had just wrapped up an intensive week-long German ‘catch-up’ course in order to start taking German classes next term.   Therefore, I felt that I deserved a break from my studying (well, honestly I was just looking for a good excuse to go out and do something) and I decided to reward myself with a trip to the Ashmolean, Oxford University’s Museum of Art and Archaeology and the oldest museum in the UK (take that, British Museum!).  The Ashmolean is one of Oxford University’s four principle museums, along with the History of Science, Natural History, and Pitt Rivers museums.  The museum is spread over 4 floors and its collections span the globe and the entire course of human history.  I was in heaven.

The museum is ordered roughly chronologically, beginning with prehistoric finds from Eurasia and Africa.  I started in the East Asia section and slowly worked my way west.  By the time I reached the Ancient Near East section, I had already spent 2 hours in the museum and my legs were beginning to get rather tired.  Then, I saw it:  the Sumerian King List!  For those of you reading who aren’t Assyriologists, the Sumerian King List at first glance doesn’t look all that exciting.  At second glance, it still doesn’t very exciting.  It is a clay rectangular prism no more than 8 inches tall and maybe 4 inches wide and deep.  It is a bland brownish-gray, and it looks like it’s been glued together from a bunch of fragments, which isn’t far from the truth.  On all four of the long sides, the SKL is entirely covered in tiny cuneiform text.  It is the text that makes this artifact so exciting.

The Sumerian King List lists the kings (surprise!) of various dynasties that ruled ancient Mesopotamia from the pre-dynastic period to about 1900 BC.  Although there are several known copies, the most complete one is the prism displayed in the Ashmolean.  The SKL is a key text for reconstructing the early history of Mesopotamia, as it not only lists kings but also records when they ruled and from which city.  The document has to be considered with measured skepticism however, especially for the earliest periods, for it also records the reigns of mythical figures such as the god Dumuzi, to whom is attributed a reign of 3,600 years, as well as pseudo-mythical kings like Gilgamesh, who was both a historical figure and the subject of mythical epics.  Despite its difficulties, the Sumerian King List remains an important text, and pictures of it are shown in practically every Intro to the Ancient Near East course.  Seeing it person really brought into perspective how even seemingly small, mundane looking finds can have an enormous impact on an academic field.

I absolutely loved my visit to the Ashmolean Museum, and I will definitely going back there several times while I’m here.  I’ll have to; after spending several hours wandering the Ancient World collections, I had to leave because the museum was closing.  I never even made it past the first floor!

Saying Goodbye (Part I)

As many of you may know, I am spending my winter break in Oxford.  This has given me the chance to see many of my new friends off as they head their separate ways, some to home, and some to spend their break travelling.  Some of these friends will be back next term, and some of them have said their final farewell to Oxford.  Emotions were running high as we said our goodbyes, and many of us fought back the tears as hugged each other and promised that we would all meet again, however far down the road that may be.  As Michaelmas term comes to a close, now is the perfect time to reflect on what has been an amazing two months.

It already seems so long ago that I hopped on a plane in Rochester to set out on this adventure.  When I first got to Oxford, I felt apprehensive and utterly disoriented.  Despite the fact that American and the United Kingdom share a common language, accents and differing vocabularies led to plenty of confusion (I still can’t bring myself to call cookies “biscuits”).  The food was (mercifully) far better than my expectations, while the English weather proved to live up to its damp and dreary reputation.  I soon learned my way around the city, and by now I can navigate Oxford just as well as Ithaca back home, if not better.

It quickly became clear that Oxford University has earned its place as one of the best and most challenging universities in the world.  Although the terms are short—only 8 weeks each—they are intense, and all of my fellow American visiting students agree that after 8 weeks the level of mental exhaustion is the same as after a 12 week semester back home.  This is almost certainly because of the tutorial system; the strain from writing up to a couple essays every week to be personally critiqued in a one-on-one meeting with a tutor takes its mental toll, and every single student, matriculated and visiting alike, was ecstatic with the end of term.  Although I feel that I learn more sheer facts over a broader range of subjects in the American university system, the Oxford system is unmatched in the depth and the amount of individual research it demands from its students.

My favorite part about Oxford is of course the people.  Everyone has been very friendly:  the lecturers, the tutors, the other students, and the townsfolk have all been kind and welcoming.  It always surprises me how close people can become in such a short time.  The small communities found in the colleges bring people together, and even if you can’t name everyone who goes to your college, you can still recognize most of them when you see them around town.  The visiting students all share a common bond, but the regularly matriculated students are just as ready to make friends, even if they are sometimes baffled by the concept of a ‘junior year abroad’.  Even after only 8 weeks, it is clear that some of these new friendships could last a lifetime.

All in all, it has been a fantastic, if stressful, term.  I am excited for the upcoming Hillary term and the new adventures—academic and otherwise—that it will bring.  Although it was sad to see several new friends say their goodbyes to Oxford, I look forward to meeting the new visiting students that arrive in just over a month.  Until then, I will enjoy this Christmas season in Oxford, attempt to be some semblance of productive, and relish this opportunity to explore the city and the country that is swiftly becoming a home-away-from-home.


My apologies for how long it’s taken me to get this post up; we’re near the end of the term and life has gotten a bit hectic.  Next week’s post should be up by Sunday evening as normal.


Thanksgiving is essentially a North American holiday, celebrated in the USA and Canada, and therefore does not exist in the United Kingdom.  All of the American and Canadian at St. Catherine’s were not relishing the idea of spending Thanksgiving away from home.  For many of us, it is our favorite holiday, and spending too much time thinking about missing it was enough to put any American or Canadian student here into a melancholy mood.  The wonderful directors of St. Catherine’s visiting student program, however, the past few years have made it their task to ensure that the college puts on a proper Thanksgiving dinner for all of their students.

Although I still had class on Thanksgiving Day, I was lucky enough to be able to catch the tail-end of the Thanksgiving Day Parade (thanks to my lovely girlfriend, Mikayla), which finished close to dinnertime in the UK, due to the 5 hour time difference.  About an hour later, all of the American and Canadian students and staff were invited to the Senior Common Room—basically the lounge for all the resident professors and lecturers—for drinks with the Master of St. Catherine’s.  There we had a chance to meet several people, particularly grad students, whom most of the undergrads had never seen.  I met a Canadian couple, both grad students, who live on Lake Ontario directly across from my town.  After drinks, we all processed to the dining room for dinner.

When we entered the dining room, we immediately saw that it had been decorated for the occasion, with lots of flowers and fall vegetables covering the tables.  Dinner was a delicious 4-course affair, including all the staples:  turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and puzzlingly enough, bacon rolls.  Our only critique was dessert:  there was pecan pie instead of pumpkin.  The college Dean then gave a speech about his research into Thanksgiving while we enjoyed an after-dinner coffee, and then we all headed to the JCR, thoroughly stuffed, to watch what was left of the football match (American football, of course, not soccer).

The Cornell Club of London, not to be outdone, invited all of the American students from Cornell, Brown, and UPenn studying in the UK to join them the following Saturday at the East India Club in London for a Thanksgiving dinner of their own.  My friends Shen, Shannon, and Kelvin and myself took them up on the offer and we all headed out for London Saturday on the Oxford Tube, a bus company that runs directly from Oxford to London.

The East India Club was incredibly lavish, or ‘posh’ as the British would say, with family crests decorating the entrance hall and fine china and trophies prominently displayed.  We were escorted to a reception room, where we were all given nametags.  An hour of mingling with other students and Cornell alums followed, until it was finally time for dinner; this was around 8, and we were quite hungry.  The food was delicious and there was more than enough of it to go around.  Bacon rolls again made an appearance, and this time there was a scrumptious pumpkin pie for dessert.  The president of the Cornell Club followed the dinner with a speech, and we all finished off the evening with a rousing rendition of the Cornell alma mater.  My friends and I ended up staying until about a quarter of midnight, relaxing and chatting with some new-found friends.  We finally made it back to St. Catherine’s College around 3 in the morning, well-fed and ready to spend the next 24 hours sleeping off our fantastic feasts.